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MINI John Cooper Works Chili Pack

Our favourite hot hatch serves up plenty of driving thrills.

The VW Golf GTI has more than 30 years of heritage, but the John Cooper Works can trace its roots back even further. It takes its cues from hot Minis of the Sixties – yet while it pays homage to these British classics, the JCW is a superb modern hot hatch in its own right.

Our current class favourite looks the part, too. A unique grille, bonnet bulge, 17-inch wheels and JCW decals give it a sporty edge, without ruining its unique MINI styling. The compact dimensions mean it’s smaller than its rivals in this test, and can’t match them for passenger or luggage space. But for those who don’t need the practicality of the Golf or Civic, the MINI’s interior is hard to fault.

The superb blend of retro-inspired design and quality materials gives you a cabin that’s a great place in which to pass the miles. While the standard seats aren’t particularly sporty, and lack the support of the GTI’s chairs, they are comfortable and the driving position is excellent. The MINI isn’t short on performance, either. Despite having the smallest-capacity engine in our line-up, the turbocharged 1.6-litre delivers 208bhp – more than the GTI. Its torque output of 280Nm also matches the Golf. But the two engines are very different in character: the JCW delivers its power more suddenly, giving the little Brit a feisty personality.

It outperformed the Golf in our track tests, and was more than a second faster than the Civic in all of our in-gear assessments. This punchy nature means the clever front differential has to work very hard to keep things in check and maintain traction. And while we’ve been impressed with it before, our long-term model doesn’t feel quite as accomplished as the other examples we’ve driven.

Tested back-to-back with the Golf, the MINI pulls from side-to-side and follows cambers in the road more than the GTI when you apply the power on poor surfaces. The ride is harder and less comfortable, too, although this firm edge doesn’t prevent it being more refined than the Honda. The MINI is impressively alert at almost any speed and the steering is sharp, well balanced and responsive. Body control is superb and a snappy gearchange and strong brakes wrap up an excellent dynamic package. Plus, as with the Golf, all the controls are wonderfully weighted and provide plenty of feel.

Ultimately, the MINI is more agile, but dynamically it’s raucous. The Golf has greater poise and polish to its chassis, and a more composed ride. But the British modelhas lower emissions and, during its time with us, was the most economical choice. The optional Chili pack provides standard equipment to match the GTI, too, although the MINI is expensive compared to the generously specified Civic.

Entertaining, solidly built, fast and fun, the JCW is a fantastic hot hatch. The question is whether it’s a good enough all-rounder to hold on to its crown?

Details

Chart position: 2WHY: The fastest MINI in the line-up is the best performance model the firm has built. It has already seen off the Focus RS.

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